Elements

Since awe sometimes is out of reach
and mind strains in its own finitude,

I will take the elements, the staples of the day’s end
and breathe in their meaning:

grace like the sourdough I stir through the bowl,
holiness like the wine I savour

though kids tip their food and yell,
a table ripe with God
even now.

Devotional Seeing: Thoughts for Ordinary Time

Through the ninety-something days of Lent and Easter this year I set myself the discipline of taking a photo each day and posting it with a spiritual reflection. It was an enormous task and one that I often regretted setting for myself. But it began to do something in me that has continued now that Easter season is over: it introduced me to a practice that I’m calling “devotional seeing”. It taught my eyes to look each day for the signs of God in the small and ordinary things of my day. And, as the church year moves into the long ordinary of Ordinary Time I’m feeling that it’s something I need to continue. In fact, as my city puts its masks back on and returns, after months of zero cases, to watch the case numbers rise again, I want all the more to remind myself of God’s graces in the small and ordinary. So I’m going to keep up my devotional seeing, by sharing a weekly thought – each Wednesday – accompanied by an image from the day. Feel free to join me if it’s something you’re after too. Let’s go hunting for the open heart of God wherever it can be found.

The other side to success

Year 12 results come out today in my state, after a year in which no-one would have chosen to sit their final high school exams. I live through Year 12 results every year as a teacher and this year because of people close to me receiving results I’m experiencing it more close to home. This has given me pause to reflect on my own experience of getting my results 19 years ago.

I’ve been thinking in particular about something we tell all our students every year at my school: that “the number doesn’t define you”. Had someone told me that at the time, it would have sounded to me like a pat, “you’re all winners” kind of platitude. I also would have thought that it was something you said to prepare people for doing badly, but if they did well then it was fine to let it define them.

What people never tell you is that you’ll have to process how to handle the significance of your result whatever it is, high or low. If it’s low, or simply average, it might mean an adjustment of expectations in the immediate term. It might mean a change of preferences for tertiary study. It might mean a loss of dreams. But if you do well and you still let the result define you, then you’ll have to deal with the neverending question of how well is good enough. If you come to expect perfection, it’s never enough. Even if you attain perfection once, there’ll always be the challenge to maintain it, and that will either never happen or it will destroy relationships, mental health, and all elements of life that make you slow down and show grace to yourself and others. In other words, you might get a perfect score in your work but everything else will have to suffer, and you will probably find that it really isn’t worth it.

My VCE results got me into the course of my choice and meant that my uni paid for me to study with them. It also set a standard for myself in my head that I spent over a decade fighting to maintain. I still struggle with the pressure to seek perfection and to see no middle ground between perfection and failure. My academic results led to panic attacks throughout uni that then ate into my personal life and made panic my primary way of operating in all challenging aspects of life. And when I became a teacher, and then a husband, and then a dad, I entered realms of life in which hard work could never mean perfection. I couldn’t control my students’ results. I could never be a perfect husband or dad. I would always have to drop some balls some of the time. I may never be in the 99th percentile of life again and that needed to be okay.

The truth is that our English word “perfect” has lost track of its own meaning. It means “complete”. The Greek version comes from the word “telos” which means an end point, a destination. It refers to a point of arrival. Something is perfect when it has finished its job. I will not be perfect until my race is finished, and God willing that’s still a few years away. And the thing that will conclude my race and make it perfect is not my achievement but my dependence on grace. Grace enables me to love myself and others. Grace enables me to get up again in the morning, and to turn around and face my family again after I’ve blown a fuse or said something I regret. Grace makes my failures into successes and makes my successes into means of further grace not just for myself but for others. Without grace, I am all sound and fury, whatever number academic bodies attach to that sound, however socially acceptable the fury. With grace, everything – everything – is turned towards a perfect end.

That’s what I wish they told me about success 19 years ago. That’s why the number – whatever it is – must not define you. Only grace is worth that much.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 22

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:6-8

First in these verses I am struck by God’s kindness to Jonah, seeking to “ease his discomfort” from the heat even in the midst of Jonah’s temper. Then I am struck by what seems petulant of God – to strike the plant and make the weather even hotter. Somehow I think I would be more comfortable with God never giving Jonah the plant than by Him giving it then taking it away. To human eyes, Jonah’s anger over this at least makes sense: he has felt the comfort of God’s presence with him and then the burning discomfort of God’s presence against him. In Advent we might ask the challenging but necessary question: is God-with-us always a source of comfort? For Jonah, it seems to be both; and I think that’s the point.

God will explain Himself to Jonah at the end of this chapter, and so we won’t preempt the answer yet. As I hope we’ve seen again and again in the book of Jonah, there’s great value in taking Jonah’s story as he experiences it, step by step. And this step – of feeling angry at God for the seeming inconsistency of His actions towards us – is something that many of us no doubt can relate to, little though we might like to focus on it. It makes us uncomfortable because it is unpredictable; it is outside our control. We are happy to give things up to God’s control if we can predict what God can do. But, as we’ve seen in Jonah’s story, we aren’t just content with that: we often think we can dictate to God the terms and choose to opt out of His will (sail in the opposite direction) if we predict what He will do (save Nineveh) and don’t like it much. Which means, in reality, that we don’t want to surrender to God at all. We only want Him as a means to our own ends.

Trusting in an all-powerful God does not mean trusting in our ability to predict, and understand, His actions. Trusting in a good God doesn’t involve that either. If God knows all, and is perfectly good, then our imperfect, incomplete minds will often hit against a failure to understand what He is doing. If He were to always act on our terms, He wouldn’t be all-powerful or perfectly good. He wouldn’t save Nineveh. He wouldn’t save us either. He might be predictable, but in the end we would not like the result.

It’s much less comfortable, much more unpredictable, trusting in God on His own terms. It means taking the shade and the scorching heat, the flourishing vine, the aggressive worm. It means accepting that God-with-us will be sometimes different to what we expect because His presence is not only providing for us but most of all growing us – to be more like Him. And in the end it means – least predictable of all – the wonder of grace.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 21

Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:6-8

One of the reasons why Jonah has so little grace for the Ninevites, I suspect, is that Jonah does not actually realise he needs grace himself. It’s one thing to know you need saving in a crisis; it’s another to recognise that you didn’t deserve to be saved, that you were the architect of your own crisis. Jonah as we see him in Chapter 4 has not learnt the lesson of grace that we might expect of him, and this seems odd. Surely if we had experienced what he had, we would come out different on the other side?

There’s a whole array of reasons why we can experience remarkable circumstances of grace yet not become people of grace. One of the reasons I am coming to identify in my own life is a sense of entitlement. We fail to see grace for what it is because we think we are entitled to it. Many of us think it because we “aren’t perfect but aren’t as bad as other people”. We might think it because we judge that the good we do outweighs the bad. Jonah probably thought it because of his national identity as part of God’s chosen people, a people for whom sitting underneath the shade of their own tree or vine had often been an image used by God to describe the flourishing He would give them as part of His covenant with them. But His covenant was always one of grace and always meant as a light for all the world, not, only Israel. The nations were meant to ask: “Who is this God who has come to dwell with His people?” The fact that the people were not themselves extraordinary should have made the covenant He made with them all the more remarkable. But Jonah wants it for himself and his people; he wants the shade of the vine for his own comfort while he watches his enemy fight it out alone.

At Advent, as we remember Jesus coming as a light for the whole world, it’s a challenge to think: are we seeking that light purely for our own benefit or are we seeking to be beacons of that light to others? We can start by being amazed that the light is ours to enjoy and share in the first place, and then ask God to show us how we can be His beacons and light-bearers. Otherwise it’s too easy to slip into entitlement and think, “I know there is grace for all people, but God didn’t need to use it much on me.” It’s not hard from there to become Jonah preparing to watch Nineveh be destroyed even after escaping his own destruction purely by His grace.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 20

Are you right to be angry?
The question smarts like a slapped face.
Wrong wording.
Whether or not I am right, my anger
deserves the time of day.

So turn a sullen, smarting cheek.
Stare into the raging haze.
Grace taps your chipped shoulder.
Grace takes the heat from your brow,
yet inwardly you burn with a summer sun
that has no room for grace.


Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 19

Jonah had gone out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city.

Jonah 4:5

Jonah, like me, has no answer to God for his anger. He can give the reason for it, but when asked if it is right he can say nothing. Instead he sits sullen and waits to see if he gets his own way. Instead of talking with God or having compassion on the people he was sent to save, Jonah thinks of himself, making a shelter from the sun, and seats himself with a good view of the impending fireworks from heaven.

Why? Does he think that God might change His mind and decide to destroy Nineveh after all? And if He did, what would that mean for Jonah, already saved himself by the very grace he now wants to deny Nineveh?

Jesus’ first sermon has something to say to the Jonah in us all:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1-2)

This doesn’t mean that we can never call anyone else to account for their actions, but it must be viewed through the prism of the grace we have all received. Jesus goes on to say that we cannot remove a speck of dust from another’s eye while having a log in our own eye. The image of someone trying to lean over to remove a speck from someone’s eye while whacking them with the log in their own eye has always made me chuckle. The other implication is that the eye, the means by which we see reality, is clouded by our own sin if we do not attend to it first.

Jonah in his anger cannot see anything else, least of all his own sin or the goodness of the grace that has saved both him and the Ninevites. Anger places everything other than its object in a massive blind spot, and as any driver or cyclist knows, blind spots cause crashes. I too need to be slower to spot others’ failings and quicker to check my own blind spots. And to do that, this Advent I want to slow down and listen to God asking me: Matthew, are you right to be angry?

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 18

But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Jonah 4:4

The answer, of course, has to be no. No, it isn’t right for Jonah to be angry. He has just identified one of God’s must defining characteristics for Israel – His mercy – and framed it as a problem, something to “forestall”. So no, this anger is not right. Yet God doesn’t tell Jonah he is in the wrong. Instead, He starts a dialogue with him, and it’s one of the most intimate images of God conversing with humanity that we get in the bible: Jonah petulant and sulky, and very much in the wrong, and God gently, patiently drawing him into conversation, opening him to to grace.

We will see more of what God has to say to Jonah and what this means in the coming days, but today I want simply to sit with this Advent truth: that God, in His righteousness, has not come to us to condemn us but to be near to us and to draw us to Him. Like the father gently questioning Jonah, God has come to walk, sit and dwell beside us. He has personally entered our lives to draw us into His life, and He meets us here as we are, messy anger and all, ready to change us with Emmanuel’s tender love.

Advent with the Prophet Jonah: Day 17

He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

Jonah 4:2-3

I’ve heard many interpretations of the book of Jonah that offer various reasons for why Jonah does not obey God at the start, one of the more popular ones being a desire for comfort, an unwillingness to step out into the unfamiliar or challenging. These are not entirely wrong – there’s value in them – but here Jonah tells us why he fled. He knew that God would giving Nineveh and couldn’t bring himself to be God’s agent of forgiveness.

We can judge Jonah, but the truth is that loving our enemies is significantly harder than we think. Jonah would have had ever earthly reason to not want the Nineveh’s to be spared. At a human level, his response is totally understandable. The problem is not how Jonah feels but what He does with the feeling. Instead of taking in to God, he runs away from God. Like one partner in a marriage throwing up their hands in defeat and saying, “What’s the point talking about it?”, Jonah has decided that God is incorrigibly forgiving and he no longer thinks there is any value in talking about it. And so, instead of coming to God, he runs.

This kind of thinking, whether about God or any other relationship, only ever leads to festering resentment. When we harbour grievances that we never take to the other, we can only be driven further apart as the grievances grow. William Blake describes this kind of scenario in his poem “A Poison Tree”:

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

How much worse when that growing anger is between us and God, the source of our life. How can we hope to receive grace and comfort from God when we refuse those very things out of resentment?

I have been there with Jonah many times. It’s a place I slip back into all too easily. Not only do I fancy that I know better than God but I refuse to speak to Him about it, no doubt because at some level I know that a minute of talking to Him and I’ll soon realise how little I know after all. Yet God’s grace is about to be made even more intimately apparent in this book as He takes sulking Jonah and gently persists in opening him up to the one thing that can salvage him: dialogue with God.

Ubi Caritas: For World Mental Health Day

What happens, he wonders,
shattered by the mess, by the day,
by the constancy of demands,
by the ever-present lesson of patience,
by the daily failure to learn this patience -

What happens, he asks, when my love is broken?

Nothing happens. The day goes on,
all is reset as night arrives;
all but the weight that pulls at his shoulders,
that sags like his soul has a leak in its middle.
Nothing happens;
night is as long and restless as the one before,
and morning will come with its worries anew.

But this still happens. The glory happens,
though it does not shout or cry.
Day on day, God dwells in this mystery:
that love can wake up
tomorrow
and do
what love has done today.